TOKYO, 13 Oct – Russia, the late additions to Rugby World Cup 2019, came with no expectations but left with some hope after making only their second appearance at the tournament.
Bears coach Lyn Jones saw his players celebrate Kirill Golosnitskiy's try, the first of RWC 2019, pictured, before wilting 30-10 against Japan in the opening game.
From the highs of the Tokyo Stadium came a turnaround time of just a few days, which was always going to be too much too soon for the 20th-ranked Tier 2 team, many of whose players are amateurs.
A physical encounter with Samoa at the Kumagaya Stadium ended in a 34-9 reverse and was followed by two heavy defeats against Tier 1 opponents Ireland (35-0) and Scotland (61-0).
By that stage the exhausted Bears, relying so much on their defence and set-piece, had simply run out of steam. By comparison, in their only other RWC appearance eight years ago they scored eight tries and a bonus point.
As soon as the Bears realised they would be competing on the biggest stage of all, they approached Welshman Lyn Jones, above, who was about to start a club job at Neath, Wales.
Jones, who had only a year to prepare after Spain, Romania and Belgium were disqualified from RWC 2019 for using ineligible players, called on a mixture of old and new. He is likely to continue his work with the team as his contract included a possibility of a two-year extension.
The lack of scoring has become the main drawback. In that first match against Japan, Jones surprised the Brave Blossoms with a kicking game. Delighted with the display, he kept faith with the same 23 against Samoa and it looked promising when Russia lead 6-5 before their rivals regrouped.
Samoa also had a lucky let-off when Motu Matu’u and Rey Lee-Lo were only shown yellow cards for two tackles that were subsequently deemed serious offences and they were banned. Going two men down could have made all the difference.
Player of the tournament
Russia flanker Tagir Gadzhiev did not score any points but became a distinct focus of attraction in the Russian team. His spectacular tackles and emotional contribution to the team spirit earned praise from coaches and team-mates.
The Bears are likely to undergo generational changes. It will not be a surprise if Gadzhiev, now 25, becomes a key leader of the team as they try to make progress over the next four years.
Memorable moment off the pitch
Travelling to Mount Fuji on the team bus, which provided an opportunity to see the other side of the team and coaches and observe how relaxed and easy it was in the Russia camp.
Memorable moment on the pitch
Golosnitskiy scoring the fastest-ever Rugby World Cup opening match try after just four minutes in the 30-10 defeat by hosts Japan.
Jones used the fixtures against Ireland and Scotland as an opportunity to give other players a taste of the big time with a view to trying to qualify for RWC 2023. To do that, players need to find clubs abroad, as Valery Morozov did in 2018 when he joined English club Sale.
Quotes of the tournament
"The way we have prepared and got ready for supersonic rugby at Tier 1 level is all credit to our players. Russian rugby is a sleeping bear, a sleeping giant. We just need to shake it awake and realise the potential that comes from this tournament." - coach Lyn Jones.
"We are quite isolated in Russia as it's difficult to go and play rugby abroad. I see fire and dedication in the eyes of our young guys, so we need to promote this idea to develop young talents. It's not only about sending players to compete in foreign leagues – we need to develop the game domestically, too." - Vasily Artemyev, Russia's inspirational captain, pictured with the ball.
How did they do?
L 30-10 Japan
L 34-9 Samoa
L 35-0 Ireland
L 61-0 Scotland
Russia by numbers
34 – the record number of Russia matches captained by Vasily Artemyev.
31 - the average age of the oldest squad at RWC 2019.
14 - points from top scorer, fly-half Yury Kushnarev.
8 - Artemyev is the only player to have started all eight of Russia's RWC matches but both Vladimir Ostroushko and Andrey Garbuzov have eight appearances.